Saturday, 20 December 2014

Newhaven and Cuckmere (20 December)

Saturday 20th.  John King and I visited Newhaven and the lower Cuckmere.  There were 17 Purple Sandpipers at the former, my highest count anywhere since 1989.  They were on the East Pier as the tide was coming in but then all but one flew to the West Breakwater.  A flighty male Black Redstart was behind the harbour perimeter fence and a Stonechat on walk back to the Tidemills.  
Purple Sandpiper at Newhaven.  My highest ever count was 33 there on 27 February 1983.
In the lower Cuckmere we spent the best part of four hours going through the gulls.  The best position was level with Harry's Bush looking back north as we had the sun almost behind us and most of the birds side on, although we couldn't find anything of interest from this position.

interesting gull in the flock in the west side of the lower Cuckmere.  It went to sleep and wasn't seen again and we spent ages going through this flock without seeing it or anything further.  While this was the biggest flock a smaller one was present nearer the river bank and we decided to walk around
nice view of Belle Tout lighthouse in the distance as we reached Cuckmere Haven
the smaller gull flock seemed more productive but from the riverbank the light and distance was against us as were sleeping birds.  This one had a small dark eye, darker mantle and very long wings.  Annoyingly I wasn't watching it when it stuck its head out but JK saw a long thin pale bill ...
interest in the sleeping bird was soon transferred to a good looking first-winter Caspian Gull that walked past before stopping partly behind a bush (middle bird) and mostly facing away.  The light and distance wasn't helpful either
it had the typical four coloured plumage (not that obvious in these images), long legs and wings and a very distinctively shaped head
it soon flew south, showing a whitish underwing, and appeared to land in the main flock
We retraced our steps and soon found it at even greater distance just in fro the end of the flock but it immediately sat down and went to sleep.  It seemed worth heading back around to Harry's Bush but by the time we got there it had gone.  In the Cuckmere we also saw the 5 Barnacle Geese, a possible (sleeping) Yellow-legged Gull and 2 Kingfishers.

On my way home it was low tide so I called in on the Adur to look at some more gulls.  

Herring Gull A7PW on the Adur, not one I'd seen before but presumably local (A7PM seen there in December 2011 had been ringed in Portslade)
first-winter Mediterranean Gull on the Adur
I had been hoping to try out my new camera but on switching it on at Newhaven a memory card error was displayed.  It wasn't immediately obvious how to reformat the card and I had not printed off the user guide so it had to wait until I got home (when it took 2 minutes to sort).

Tuesday 16th.  Received an email from Germany:
it confirmed that the Caspian Gull seen on the Adur on 5 October (see here) had been ringed as such.  Not that I had any doubts ... I'd even done a trait score (here)
significantly better than today's efforts

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

ECUADOR & VENEZUELA August 1986: Rio Palenque, Papallacta & Henri Pittier

The third and final part of a blog recounting a trip to Ecuador and Northern Venezuela with Nick Preston in summer 1986.  More unreliable memories (some good, some not so) and scanned degraded slides that were not very good, and almost bird free, to start with.

Rio Palenque, Tinalandia & Papallacta (18-23 August)
On 18th August we drove from Santo Domingo to Rio Palenque in the rain, arriving mid morning.  We spent the rest of day on the trails.  As well as being wet it was hot and sweaty as we were not far above sea-level, with a quite different set of birds.  With the rain easing off it was absolutely brilliant and probably the best day of the trip.  The next day was almost as good and we stayed a third although by then the law of diminishing returns was taking effect.  Despite being an isolated forest patch it retained a number of excellent species, surprisingly so in the case of some of the larger ones.  During our visit we saw Rufous-headed Chachalaca, Laughing Falcon, Ruddy Quail-Dove, Band-tailed Barbthroat, Purple-crowned Fairy, Rufous-tailed Jacamar, Rufous Motmot, Barred and White-whiskered Puffbirds, Orange-fronted Barbet, Pale-mandibled Aracari, Choco and Chestnut-mandibled Toucans, Pale-legged Hornero, Great Antshrike, Dot-winged Antbird, White-backed Fire-eye, Black-headed Antthrushes each day, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, White-bearded Manakin, Tawny-collared Gnatwren, Bay and Nightingale Wrens, Grey & Gold Warbler, Orange-billed Sparrow and Crimson Finch.  We also saw Little Tinamou and another larger darker tinamou we thought was Cinereous until we realised we were on the wrong side of the Andes.   It is replaced on the Pacific slope by Berlepechi’s for which there were reports from Rio Palenque.  We left Rio Palenque late afternoon on 20th driving back to Santo Domingo where we stayed in Hotel Roma the first we came too.

Santo Domingo in the rain
Rio Palenque, a superb but rather small and isolated patch of forest
We left Santo Domingo early on 21st and drove the short distance to Tinalandia.  We spent most of day on trails seeing almost 80 species.  It as was at a moderate elevation and a much more pleasant temperature it had some different birds.  We saw Bronze-winged Parrot, Esmerelda’s Antird, Golden-winged Manakin, Slaty-capped Shrike Vireo, Golden-bellied Warbler and Grey & Gold Tanager.  We also saw what we identified as Broad-billed Manakin, now known as Sapayoa.  It had been reported from Tinalandia previously and I have since wondered if we were right.  We returned to the pickup hoping to find the start of old road to Quito but Nick had left its lights on and the battery was flat. My Spanish was marginally better than Nick’s so I should have been better placed to take the lead but I’m afraid to say that my reaction to this news was to fling the phrasebook at him and tell him to sort it out.  I was pretty tired by then, at least that is my excuse, but doubtless Nick was too!  He walked up to the lodge which we had parked just short of and found a very helpful lady who spoke English and came down with a jump lead to do just that.  By the time we got away it was dark making it hard to find the old road and we soon gave up and returned to Santo Domingo for the night.

We left early on 22nd August but again failed to find the old road to Quito so continued on the new one, through Quito and up to Papallacta.  We made many roadside stops from pass down towards Baeza but ran out of light and completed the last part in darkness.  We stayed in Baeza and retraced our steps with many stops back up to Papallacta Village.  Here the pickup failed to go any further and it was my turn to ‘sort it out’.  We asked in the village but there was no garage.  I tried phoning the car hire company for advice but the only phone was in an isolated and deserted hut on a hillside.  The hut was unlocked and I tried the phone but it was dead, maybe it only worked at certain times.  We decided to abandon the car if a bus came and return to Quito to let the car-hire company know where there vehicle was.  With a flight to Caracas the following morning we felt that there was no alternative.  While waiting by the car for a bus a local kid arrived and asked if we needed a mechanic.  We said yes without any great hope but he soon returned with his dad who quickly got to work.  I then realised in asking for a garage the locals must have thought we’d run out of petrol which was why they couldn’t help.  The mechanic quickly seemed to think it was a blocked air-filter (quite likely given how dusty the road was) and he seemed to be making good progress in cleaning it when the bus appeared.  We quickly decided that Nick should go back on the bus and I’d follow either on a later bus or hopefully with the pickup.  Nick disappeared, the mechanic soon had the pickup fixed and drove it down to the bottom of the village and back to demonstrate.  I gratefully paid him, gave him an old jacket I no longer needed and an armful of oranges - the back of the pickup was awash with them as a result of a misunderstanding on my part and we gave them away at every opportunity.  Driving back to Quito from Cotopaxi I saw someone by the side of the road selling oranges.  It seemed a good idea to get some as our diet was pretty poor so I stopped and started negotiating with him and handed over what I thought was the money for 10.   Before I knew it had bought over 50 but at least with a pickup they could go in the back out of the way although I wished I had an orange squeezer.  Back at Papallacta I got back in the pickup and drove after the bus as fast as I could.  Fortunately it was struggling going up to the pass and I soon caught up with it.  Getting past on a narrow hairpin road was another matter and my constantly beeping the horn had little effect – I was hoping to see Nick peering out of the back window but knowing him and buses he was probably asleep already!  I got past after three or four bends, parked by the road and nonchalantly leaned on the bonnet.  The bus went past but didn’t screech to a halt so I had to jump in the car and repeat the process.  Again I got past after much tooting, again the bus sailed past me by the road.  Fortunately this time it did stop a bend further down and Nick got off.  I hope the driver and passengers thought we were crazy Americans!  We made further stops up to the pass and down the other side but by now we had pretty much had enough and we returned to Quito and handed the pickup back late afternoon before getting a bus into town and finding a hotel.  Our two days on Papallacta Pass had produced Torrent Duck, Purple-backed Thornbill, Tawny Antpitta, Rufous-breasted Flycatcher, Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Rufous-breasted and Brown-backed Chat-Tyrants, Red-rumped and Smokey Bush-Tyrants, White-capped Dipper, Red-headed Tanager, Hooded, Scarlet-bellied and Buff-breasted Mountain Tanagers, Black-backed Bush-Tanager, Mountain Cacique, Band-tailed Sierra-Finch, Slaty and Pale-naped Brush-Finches and Plushcap.

view from the new Santo Domingo to Quito road
we wondered if the old road went through any of the better habitat we could see
the road to Papallacta Pass

near the pass at Papallacta

White-banded Tyrannulet
Black-crested Warbler
approaching Baeza
scanning the river for Torrent Ducks and White-capped Dipper, it eventually paid off
On 24th we had an early morning walk around Park El Ejido in central Quito but it was almost birdless with Sparkling Violetear the best of just five species seen.  We got the bus to the airport and caught our late morning flight to Caracas.

view out of the rear bus window heading for Quito Airport
Quito Airport

Venezuela/Henri Pittier (24-27 August)
We arrived in Caracas mid-afternoon and hired a car for three days.  We got a Renault 5 with 150 free kms per day.  We were heading west to Henri Pittier National Park but to avoid Caracas we decided to take the mountain route to Maracay.  It quickly got dark and in Colonia Tovar the car couldn’t manage a very steep hill (we didn’t think to try and reverse up it but my reversing is pretty chaotic at the best of times).  We couldn’t face returning to Caracas in dark as we would have to to get onto the main highway so we slept in the car just outside Colonia Tovar. We were up at first light and drove back towards Caracas before picking up the main highway to Maracay.  We quickly found our way to the road to Ocumare and stopped at Rancho Grande in Henri Pittier.  I had hoped it would be occupied and we could persuade someone to let us stay.  I even hoped that Andy Field might still be there, a Brit Steve Gantlett and I had befriended there several years before.  We parked by the entrance and found a way around the locked gate.  The place was deserted although it had looked somewhat derelict when fully occupied as a research centre.  We birded along the trail behind the research centre but it was more overgrown than I remembered.  I was shocked to come across a memorial plaque to Andy Field by one of the biggest trees, he had been about my age and full of life.  I recalled him telling me of his helping get David Attenborough 100ft up to a platform he had built in the canopy of that tree for the filming of Life on Earth.  He had a system of ropes and pulleys leading to a small platform but both Steve and I declined his offer to go up with him.

 We ended the day birding along the road before finding somewhere to sleep, the problem being there was nowhere to get the car off the road and out of sight.  The next morning, Nick’s birthday, we concentrated on the trails, birded the road each side of the pass and climbed up to Pico Guacamayo.  We again slept near the entrance to Ranch Grande, Nick in the car and me in a bivy bag a little way outside it.  At some time around midnight, or later, a couple of passing policemen stopped to investigate us and woke Nick up.  The commotion woke me and I went over to see what was going on.  We had the usual ‘its not safe here … there might be bandits’ (yes and I’m beginning to wonder if you are two of them) etc.  I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying but got the impression it was along the lines of ‘if you pay us money you can stay’ or maybe ‘if you pay us we’ll keep an eye on you’.  Either way it seemed rather menacing and was a good time for me to play dumb - it didn’t take much acting!  I asked what their names and numbers were, trying to see it on the nearest guy’s lapel.  They quickly realised what I was doing, returned to their car and backed away with the lights off so we couldn’t read their number plate.  All rather unsettling and the thought, probably entirely unjustified, that they might tip off our presence to some rogues didn’t encourage us to stay there.  We knew there were few options to get the car off the road without driving for miles and we were reluctant to leave the car and sleep out well away from it so went a couple of km back down the road and parked by the only building in the area, a cafĂ©.  We got the car as far off the road as possible and found a couple of bins to but in front of it, sleeping on the pavement by it.  Fortunately the local dog was mostly quiet during our manoeuvres and we eventually got back to sleep.  A couple of hours later we were woken by the army, so much for the bins hiding the car.  ‘It’s not safe here … bandits (yes we’ve just met some in police uniforms) … insectos, serpientes’. They were much more friendly about it, accepted we knew where we were wasn’t ideal but our best option and soon left us in peace.  Strangely knowing the army were on the road was reassuring and we went back to sleep.  Our last morning in Venezuela started with a final look around Rancho Grande before driving back down towards Maracay.  In our two and a bit days at Rancho Grande I’d seen one new bird but it was a good one - Moustached Puffbird.  We had also seen Band-tailed Guan, Venezuelan Wood-Quail, White-tipped Quetzal, Grove-billed Toucanet, (new), Grey-throated Leaftosser, Black-faced Antthrush, Scallp-breasted Antpitta, Handsome and Golden-breasted Fruiteaters, Andean Solitaire, lots of tanagers and Chestnut-capped Brush-Finch.  
view from forest trail at Rancho Grande

looking south towards Maracay from Rancho Grande
On my previous visit we’d stopped in some dryer more scrubby habitat near the entrance of Henri Pittier where there had been a decent trail behind a rather official looking building.  We tried it again but were soon apprehended by a guard and when they realised we were foreigner’s we were taken to see the chief.  He spoke excellent English and told us we had been trespassing on private land.  I told him I had been birdwatching there three and a half years earlier and had been told by a friend at Rancho Grande that it was OK.  We were told that was no longer the case.  The friend was Andy Field and we learned that he had been found dead at the base of his tree having fallen out of it.  Such a waste and a really friendly guy.  At least he had been doing what he loved.  Having established a rapport with the chief I’d hoped we’d be allowed to continue birding in the area but that was not possible. We didn't really discover why not but were told that much had changed for the worse in Venezuela in the few years since my previous visit.  We continued down to Maracay and birded the gardens of the rather posh Hotel Maracay.  Here we saw Barred Antshrike, Stripe-backed Wren and a returning American Redstart.  Going up a ravine a little way from the hotel we saw two rather suspicious looking characters ahead of us with a gun.  They were probably hunters but by now we were feeling a little paranoid and were pleased to keep quiet and out-of-sight until they had gone.  We soon headed back to the car and drove to Caracas.  We were back at the Airport with two hours to spare so drove along the coast to Catia for a seawatch, seeing Brown Pelican, Magnificent Frigatebird, Laughing Gull and Royal and Common Terns.  We returned to the airport for our early evening flight home and handed the car back having done 449km, just one below our 450 free allowance.  It had been a good trip although we had found Venezuela hard work and had me wondering how I had survived 2 months on public transport with Steve Gantlett!  The trip had cost me £785 in total, of which £490 was the airfare.  Between us we had seen just over 500 species in Ecuador and another 70 odd in Venezuela and I had had over 140 new birds.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

pipits, raptors and gulls (13 December)

Saturday 13 December.  Another very enjoyable day out with John King. These crisp sunny winter days are hard to beat, unless you are looking/driving into the sun.  We met outside Lewes and I drove to West Rise Marsh.  Here we concentrated on the area to the east and along one of the thicker reed strips 6 Bearded Tits came and investigated us before melting away.  They remained in the area but we never saw them again.  We saw and heard at least one Water Pipit but only in flight. We joined up with Simon Linington and John Gowers and saw it 7-8 times, often inadvertently flushing it.  It nearly always flew a long way before usually heading back showing little other than pale underparts and white outer-tail feathers.  We also saw Cetti's Warbler and a Marsh Harrier before heading for Hose-eye Level.  Approaching from the south was unfortunate as the road to Rickney was closed requiring a long detour.  John had seen the Richard's Pipit twice before, both times in the model aeroplane field (not that there was any evidence that the field was used as such). We arrived there, I put my scope up to start scanning - a fairly daunting prospect - and it was the first bird I saw - I didn't even have to scan to see it! It was on view for the whole 90 minutes of so we were there, often fairly close but then usually against the light.  Almost as good were a ring-tailed Hen Harrier and 2 Short-eared Owls.  We left at 14:00 and called in at the Rough-legged Buzzard at Jevington.  It was pointed out to us sitting on the distant hillside but it soon flew and landed in a more distant tree, right against the light.  With limited daylight we left and arrived at the Cuckmere at 15:00 with the shadows lengthening and temperature starting to drop.  A flock of about 400 gulls was in the first big field to the south. They were generally not that closely bunched together, the light was behind us (if a little bright)  and they were a manageable distance.  There were several interesting looking birds in the flock but it was a very frustrating experience as none gave prolonged good views and (perhaps because of the light) my images were dreadful.  I suspected there were two adult and a third-winter Caspian Gulls present but views were certainly not good enough to rule out similar looking hybrids and too soon they all flew off south, presumably to roost on the sea?  An adult Yellow-legged Gull was marginally better.  The five Barnacle Geese were still present despite most of the Canadas not being there (several hundred were seen flying distantly over Pevensey Levels) and a Kingfisher on the river by the car park was the perfect end to the day.

male Bearded Tit, one of my all time favourite birds

very adept at playing hide-and-seek in the reeds
no black in the tail is apparent but the black on the mantle suggests this is a juvenile.  If so the yellow bill makes it a male 

Richard's Pipit on Horse-eye Level, not at its est against the light
even worse
Rough-legged Buzzard at Jevington
this was the first interesting gull seen in the flock.  Unfortunately other than open its eye (it was dark) we never saw any more of it and it flew with that part of the flock without being seen.  Frustrating as the pure white head, darker mantle and long wings with white on p10 would have made it worth persueing.
a dark mantled third-winter that we never saw any more on, although did probably see later
what looked encouraging for an adult Caspian Gull (1/3rd in from right) that we never saw the wings or most of the legs of.  Its pure white head, small dark eye, long, thin paler bill (not very obvious from this image ) and darker mantle were all encouraging but couldn't rule out a hybrid.  Unseen by me at the time is a dark-mantled third-winter partly in shot on the extreme left.  This may be the bird in the above image and was probably what looked good for a third-winter Caspian Gull that soon after walked behind the adult.  It showed a long thin bill with black tip, small angled head, small dark eye and rather upright stance but my attempts to get images failed miserably and it sat down out of sight and remained that way until the flock flew.
another of the adult although from the views we had a hybrid could not be ruled out
adult Yellow-legged Gull, the legs were yellower than appears the case in this image
Barnacle Geese in the Cuckmere
Tuesday 9 December.  A Peregrine on Southwick Power Station chimney at first light.

Monday 8 December.  Herring Gulls A5HH (red on white) and A4AH (black on white) at the University. Neither were new.

Sunday 7 December.  Megan and I walked around Beeding Brooks with 80 Fieldfares, 30 Redwings and 10+ Blackbirds being the only birds of note.  We called in at Cuckoo's Corner as the light was going and after looking on the riverbank and fields to the south saw the Tundra Bean Goose on the riverbank to the north. 

 testing the new camera on a Starling in the garden
Beeding Brooks, unfortunately there was nothing at the foot of the rainbow by the time we got there
Tundra Bean Goose on the Adur.  60x in poor light with the new SX60 camera